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This falls into the category called First World problems. People who bring books onto airplanes face trouble when the book is on an e-reader like a Kindle or an iPad or a Nook, which they cannot read as the plane takes off or approaches its landing. That is the rule of the Federal Aviation Administration, which is now under pressure to change it. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.
BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: If you've flown at all, you've heard the flight attendant announce it's time to stow those portable electronic devices; anything with an on or off switch must be turned off. If you fly a lot, like Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, you hear it a lot. Even the flight attendants, she says, are getting tired of saying it.
SENATOR CLAIRE MCCASKILL: Many flight attendants have expressed frustration at how much time they spend on turn it off, we're about to land. Turn it off. Have you shut that down? Have you really shut it down? Sir, I've asked you to shut it down. And I think they are frustrated with that.
NAYLOR: So McCaskill, mindful of the frustrations of flight attendants and passengers alike, recently wrote the Federal Aviation Administration, urging that it allow the use of portable electronic devices for, quote, "the full duration of the flight." McCaskill says the FAA's current policy on e-readers and the like is anachronistic.
MCCASKILL: We really don't have any factual basis to support that they are a safety concern. And I'm big on getting rid of regulations that make no sense, and I think this is one that it's just time we take a really close look at it.
NAYLOR: We're not talking about cell phones here. Those are transmitting devices and no officials are calling for their use just yet. McCaskill's isn't the only letter the FAA has received of late urging action on e-readers. Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski wrote the FAA earlier this month, pointing out that mobile devices are, quote, "increasingly interwoven in our daily lives," that they help drive economic growth and boost U.S. competitiveness.
The two agencies are working together to study the safety of the devices. Commercial pilot Patrick Smith, who writes the online blog AskthePilot.com, says the safety issue is more about physics than electronics.
PATRICK SMITH: As I understand it, any electronic interference that can be caused by these devices is really negligible to beyond negligible. And all along it's been more about them being a piece of hardware and a potential projectile, not about interference.
NAYLOR: Smith points out that a number of airlines are now allowing pilots to use the e-devices in the cockpit in lieu of those traditional big black bags of manuals and publications. But another pilot, Kevin Hiatt, who heads the Flight Safety Foundation, says the FAA, while moving slowly on the issue, is right to be cautious. He says there are so many different types of devices, as well as many different types of aircraft, the agency has no choice but to conduct thorough testing.
KEVIN HIATT: What the concern is, that we don't know with the Kindle or the iPad or the Nook or any of those types of devices just exactly what they might be emitting. Have they been turned off or turned on for airplane mode? And the other part of it is, have they been damaged? Sometimes when you damage one of those types of devices, it then alters the way it works. And then it might be sending out something that nobody knows how it would affect the cockpit.
NAYLOR: But critics of the FAA's go slow approach say there has been thorough, if unofficial, testing, by passengers who either mistakenly or intentionally fail to turn off their devices when told to do so by flight attendants, without ill effect.
The FAA would not comment for the record, but officials say they are bringing together all the stakeholders, from flight attendants to manufacturers, to figure out how to go forward. Senator McCaskill says if the agency doesn't adopt what she calls common sense changes soon, she's ready to introduce legislation to force it to act.
Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.